Location: Cincinnati, Ohio, United States

Saturday, February 25, 2012

TR: Florida Trip 2011 - Day 1

Trip Report: Florida Vacation, 2011!
October 22-29, 2011


This year, my Uncle Rick and his wife, Aunt Wanda decided to take a trip to Flordia, and they invited Mom and I along. TO make the deal even sweeter, I convinced them to go to Islands of Adventure to see the new Harry Potter land. Oh, and my skills as travel agent are always appreciated. So, I sourced and secured airfare, hotel, rental car, theme park tickets, and with that we were on our way.

Day 1: Saturday, October 22.

"Getting there is half the fun!"

In the interest of saving $100 per person on airfare, we decided not to fly out of the Cincinnati airport, and make the hour long (if that) trek up to Dayton. We had not used the Dayton airort before, but the pessimistic Maps program on the iPhone suggested to leave 90 minutes for travel. Once I combine that with the way too pessimistic TSA guideline of arriving 2 hours before your flight, and then I factor in an over excited Rick, and we were on the road for our 10:30 flight at about 6:30. I kid you not. I think Google was pessimistic because I charted my course in advance, during rush hour.

So, as I said he picked us up around 6:30, we loaded the car, secured the house and set off for that thriving metropolis known as Dayton. Nothing too eventful on the way up, and I note the Dayton airport is signed pretty well. A quiick jaunt up I-75, then an exit on I-70 and then onto the airport access road. They make getting to the airport easy, figurig out where to park, that's a horse of a different color.

When researching parking I ruled out off site parking, as most of it appeared to be little more than hotels renting out unused spaces in their parking lots, and then you ride the hotel shuttle to the airport. I did find one competetive off site lot, but they advised they close at midnight. With a late night flight home, we may have made that deadline, but to save a mere $7 vs. the risk, not worth it.

So, it's official on site parking for me, and as I noted that's a horse of a different color, literally, as they have a myriad of color coded parking offerings, each with completely different price structures. Going from most expensive down, you have valet parking at the terminal ($20/day), then the short term parking garage acorss the street from the terminal ($15/day), then the BLUE long term parking lot, which is located directly behind the terminal, and you access the terminal by walking through the short term garage ($12/day), then the PINK long term parking, its in the remote lot, obstensibly still within walking distance ($14/day), the the RED long term lot ($12/day), the the GREEN Economy Lot ($6/day). Now the only difference between the RED and GREEN lots is a jersey barrier setup down the middle of the lot, and GREEN parking get the furthest spaces from the terminal. OK, that seems fair, but they do offer a bus to the terminal.

So, we decide to take the cheap $6 parking space, and do wind up almost at the far reaches of the lot, in the Clark Griswold parking space. But, what's this? A bus has pulled up behind us, and an attendant is out and helping us load baggage onto the bus, then he takes us directly to the terminal building, non stop. And this is the economy $6 parking? I can't imagine the higher price lots offering anything better than this. Note: Since our trip, like less than a week after our trip, the RED and GREEN long term lots were combined into one large RED lot, but at the $6 GREEN rate structure. It makes me wonder what is so great about the first few rows in the PINK section to make them worth $14.

So, we get dropped off at the terminal building. There isn't much to see, and it's a straight forward affair. I note use of the human behaviors design in the layout that I meantion every so often. When you enter the terminal, check in is on the right, then the TSA checkpoint is in the center. This means when you are arriving, the baggage claim is to the right of the TSA exit.

I go up to a bank of Delta kiosks, scan the barcode on the boarding pass I had printed the night before, and tell Delta about our bags. From there it is up to the counter to actually check the bags in, where the attendant checks ID, boarding passes, weighs, tags, and checks in bags and sends us to TSA. I'm starting to question what the big deal is with web check in if you aready have an assigned seat, and are checking bags.

We note the one set of public restrooms on the land side of the terminal are literally at the TSA checkpoint, you have to walk up near the exit to TSA (where arriving passengers leave the sterile zone), and for men you almost walk right up to the "do not cross" line. We had reserved a wheelchair for Mom as she doesn't do long walks well, and one benefit of that is you get to short circuit the queue for TSA, oh wait, there is no queue for TSA right now. In fact, we get up to the podium where they check IDs and boarding passes, and they open up a whole new line for us. So now its laptop out of bag, shoes off, coat off, belt off, and all the other things you have to do. Preparing for security is a much longer process than actually going through it, particularly when you merely go through the standard metal detector, and not the puffer or body scan machines, So, it;s like 8:15, for our 10:30 flight and we are already airside. Let's see there are a couple food places in center court, but lets go down closer to our gate.

Again, it's an easy layout, with two halls extending from the central terminal leading to a concourse at either end of the terminal. At the end of the hall, it;s up oe floor, and our gate is right at the top of the escalator. We get settled in, and start looking for breakfast. There is a bar, and a Quiznos. I guess it's breakfast subs, The 4" Steak and Egg, not bad at all. Across the hall is the gift shop. I noted no UD items, even in Dayton, They did have plenty of Ohio State items, and the usual assortment of overpriced souvenirs, candy, etc. What wasn't overpriced was the special 65 cent issue of a certain men's magazine.

So we settled in next to our gate, and we waited, and waited. There were restrooms near the gate, which was nice, even if they were small, and the person who designed the non handicap stall in the men's room (I told you it was small), has obviously never had to use it. You have to literally wedge your leg in between the toilet and the toilet paper dispenser, and then they put a hyper sensitive auto flush on it where if you move a muscle the thing flushes.

Anyway, at around 10:00 they give us the bad news that our flight won't be leaving till nearly 11:00. They had to reseat a bunch of people as the aircraft they were sending was a different type than originally intended, but that didn't effect us. We did take advantage of pre boarding, and were soon settled in for the first leg of the trip: Dayton to Atlanta. The first flight was dull and uneventful, and on one of Delta's MD's which offers no in flight entertainment, well they did outfit it for WiFi, which is nice, And you do get your half a can of soft drink, and a pack of peanuts. But, uneventful none the less.

Atlanta is one of the nations busiest airports, and a big Delta hub. I was glad a wheelchair attendant was there to meet our plane, as one benefit of that is they can guide us through the mayhem that is Atlanta airport. Oh it seems simple enough, several lettered concourses laid out side by side in a row, and a subway train to connect between them. We, of course would arrive nearly at the end of a concourse (always), have to go to the center of B, wait for and go down an elevator, get on the tain, ride to A, wait for another elevator, and then make our way to, you guessed it, almost the end of concourse A. We overheard a conversation that there was a line of 27 wheelchairs waiting for the elevator down from A to the subway, that and I was surrpsied to see the elevator doors open on one floor that was clearly a service floor. (Don't get off here, or they will put you to work)

While waiting for our next flight, I did go to Burger King to get a soft drink. As much as for the drink as to try out a Coca Cola Freestyle Machine. Freestyle is a Coca Cola fountian beverage machine that claims to offer up to 125 different drinks from one compact machine. Well Burger King had three of these, and only one was working, so I don't know about reliability. You first get your ice by pushing your cup against a lever in the usual way, then you touch the touch screen to start, then touch a base drink (Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Root Beer, Orange, Water, Lemonade, etc) then based on the base drink you chose, you can then select additional flavor syrups to be added to your drink. I'll have a Cherry Vanilla Diet Coke please. Then you hold your cup under the nozzle and touch the big button that appears on the screen to get your drink.

So, we enjoyed some soft drinks, then boarded the flight to Tampa. For whatever reason, this flight, while about the same length as the first flight, seemed a lot shorter and I think the reason for that was the in flgiht trivia game offered on the in seat entertainment system. I mean the flight seemed to be over in a matter fo a few minutes.

Here in Tampa we were met by another host, and taken from the airside terminal, via the monorail to the main terminal, then down the elevator to baggage claim. From there we claimed our bags, made a comfort stop, and stepped out the doors to the ground transportation area. Now, when I rented a car from EZ Rent a Car, they asked for my flight number. In mere minutes after stepping outside, a courtesy van arrived to take us to their off site rental facility.

EZ Rent a Car is one of those value rent a car companies, not a name brand, but about half the cost. The car they rented us was a very new Nissan Quest (a van, but great for vacationing in style), they didn't try to hard sell the insurance or anything like that, nice all around people. "You can buy the pre pay gas option, OR you can just stop at that 7-11 right across the street and top off before dropping it off."

So, air travel and rental car were success stories, now to find the hotel in Clearwater Beach. The rental car people gave us great directions out to the causeway. First its the long causeway to Clearwater, then drive through town, then the other long causeway out to the beach. It's a resort town, and soon to the chagrin of my GPS system, we are driving alongside the gulf road to our hotel.

For the hotel, the main priority was the price, and for that we checked into the Eccono Lodge on the Beach for $75/night. The parking lot is small and cramped, but check in was a breeze, and I soon had room keys for two rooms. The keys looked like some kind of thumb drive or memory card with a printed circuit board style connector that went into the lock, weird. Keys and a parking pass, time to move in.

Looking at reviews of this hotel, you'd be running away, very fast. And like most things, it's not as bad as the reviews say, not that its great either. It's a buget hotel.

Let's look at the positives - the rooms are a bit larger than your standard room, and they come complete with an efficency kitchen. So you get a cooktop, kitchen sink, microwave, toaster, coffee maker, dishes, silverware an other kitchen implements. So that's nice. Hairdryer in the bathroom. Safe and iron/board in the closet, and working free WiFi. Sure, it's nothing fancy, but it certainly is serviceable, a the room also has a sliding glass door and balcony with patio furniture. In terms of recreation there is a pool and a hot tub on the back patio, an it shares a "private beach" with two neighboring hotels. So that's nice, and the private beach has a parasail info booth, though my Mom was all "Don't even think about it".

We landed in what are possible the two worst rooms in the hotel, if you read the reviews. Such is the life of those looking to save money. The hotel doesn't have that large a footprint, maybe 5 floors, with 14 rooms to a floor. The first floor is largely taken up by the office, guest laundry, and public restrooms. We were on the first floor in rooms 151 and 152 I believe. The crazy numbering leads me to believe this may have been part of a larger complex at one point. Those would be the rooms right next to the Trifecta of the elevator, the one ice machine for the entire hotel (no coolers please, and placed where the desk clerk can keep an eye on it), and the restrooms. Just one door down is the end of the hall with the door to the pool and beach. Did i mention all these doors are on very strong springs, and slam quite effectively.

So we got settled in, and then went driving down the beach towards Treasure Island. One thing is for sure, the area has gone upscale. A lot of the mom and pop places, including the place we stayed 11 yeas ago, have been leveled, and most replaced with condos. In fact with the exception of a few areas, the condos have been built in such a manner that it is actually hard to see the gulf while driving. So we drove around a lot, getting the lay of the land, buying some basic supplies, and eventually wound up at a Golden Corral for dinner (Hey, it's late, we hadn't eaten since early morning) Said Golden Corral was very crowded with some of the rudest people you can imagine. Push you out of the way rude. Not a nice experience at all.

From the restaurant, we returned to the hotel, got settled in, and took the first of many walks down the street to check out the myriad off tacky 'surf shops' which all sell the usual assortment of tacky souvenir products.

From there, we decided to go back and rest up in anticipation of Day 2. Well Mom and I rested well. We were on the Quality Inn side of the hotel, Rick and Wanda were on the Shepherd's side of the property and apparently they get to "enjoy" late night musical entertainment. "It can't be as bad as all that, well, yes it can"


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